Monday, December 31, 2012

Top Fifty TV Episodes of 2012

Unlike my top fifty shows, which I found a very fun list to compile, picking my fifty favorite episodes of the year was agony. There were countless great hours and half-hours of television to choose from, and while I eventually whittled things down to about fifty (give or take a few pairings of back-to-back Mad Men and Game of Thrones and Legend of Korra episodes I lumped into single slots because I'm weak and cowardly), there were no less than twenty episodes of 2012 TV I adored and deleting from my rough draft list felt like chipping away pieces of my soul.

Also, I myself was surprised by what shows did and didn't find their way onto my final list. While all of my top ten shows are represented by at least one installment, a full seven of my #30-11 shows failed to make the cut (and, for the record, exactly one show of my #50-31 has an episode listed). All the same, both my fifty shows list and fifty episodes list are totally genuine and from the heart, so I guess it just goes to show that we're all bundles of contradictions. Or at least I am, anyway.

Final quick disclaimer: The bottom thirty or so of this list is all pretty arbitrary and could be mixed up in more or less any order and I'd still be ok with it, so don't take it too serious. Also, just for fun, I've placed asterisks next to episodes that are season finales (there are no series finales on the list, though there are three series premieres). Here goes:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top Ten TV Shows of 2012

We come to it at last. The great top ten of our time. You could probably switch my #10 pick with The L.A. Complex or American Dad! and I'd be ok with it, but I feel very comfortable with the placement and ranking of my top nine, the nine shows you could whittle all of television down to and it'd still be my favorite medium. Best of all, though three are ending (one in January) and one lost its original showrunner, all ten of these shows are continuing in 2013. Enough foreplay, let's get down:

10. Justified (FX)

There's been grousing on these here internets about Justified's third season not quite measuring up to its phenomenal second, and I can agree with that. (I didn't see Justified season 2 until it hit DVD, but when it did I wound up shotgunning the entire season in two sittings; five episodes the first night, eight the next.) Though actor Neal McDonough did the best he could, season 3 antagonist Robert Quarles just wasn't up to snuff with season 2's legendary Mags Bennett.

But when it comes to the day-to-day of pulpy crime fiction, no show does it better. Seriously – it can tell a fine serialized story, but when it goes straight cop procedural, Justified leaves the entire rest of that genre choking on the exhaust of its superiority (with the only two other examples on this list being Awake at #25 and Longmire at #46, and TV's million other cop procedurals being way down below my top fifty).

Part of this is due to Timothy Olyphant's charisma, even more due to the show's redneck noir Harlan County settings, but the biggest contributor has to be its lineup of lovable white-trash villainy: Ever-scheming Dickie Bennett, poor dumb Dewey Crowe, and especially Walton Goggins' sometimes-villain/sometimes-ultra-dark-antihero Boyd Crowder, one of the most unstoppably watchable characters on all television. I wouldn't say he overshadows Olyphant to the same extent Ian McShane did on Deadwood, but three seasons in there remains a giddy, tingling thrill to every scene he's a part of.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Top Fifty TV Shows of 2012: #30 - 11

Ok, we've gotten through #50-31, which only contained about seven or eight shows I can really say I like, and, to be perfectly honest, I only did as a way to organize my thoughts and to passive-aggressively antagonize people whose favorite show didn't make the cut. But now the wheat has been separated from the chaff, and my #30-11 contains a full twenty shows I like, and even a few I consider personal favorites. Let's go:
30. The Daily Show (Comedy Central)

By percentage, I've seen far less of what The Daily Show aired in 2012 than anything else in my top forty. But the closer we got to November 6th and the more inescapable electoral politics became, the more I found myself tuning in to Jon Stewart for a little nightly mental and emotional salving. I admit I tend to forget The Daily Show when there's no major news story and the guest isn't a sitting or ex-president, but during election season, it's the best. (You can also consider this an honorary slot for The Colbert Report and The Rachel Maddow Show, the only other non-DNC, non-election night political programs I watched more than ten minutes of in 2012.)

29. Gravity Falls (Disney)

Basically a mix of The X-Files, The Simpsons, and whatever kids-go-on-adventures cartoon you care to name, Disney's new Gravity Falls is a colorful, creative blend of sci-fi/fantasy/horror anthology and animated sitcom. The show's writing staff includes veterans of Community, Adventure Time, and Veronica Mars, the jokes hit fast, and the worldbuilding has been superb for just twelve episodes. The season also got better as it went along, with my four favorite episodes – involving cloning mishaps, time travel shenanigans, video game characters coming to life, and a freaky, Miyazaki-esque Halloween monster – all falling in the second half of the show's run. If this quality incline continues, I could see Gravity Falls shooting way up on my 2013 list.

28. Sherlock (PBS)

Sherlock's three-episode 2012 run presents a bit of a puzzle: How do I rank a show when I found a third of it exceptional, a third of it good, and a third of it bordering on horrible? Because make no mistake, the second episode of Sherlock's second season, "The Hounds of Baskerville," sucked. From atrocious CGI to its nonsense final reveals, it sucked. On the other hand, the third, Holmes vs. Moriarty-centric episode, "The Reichenbach Fall," was quite enjoyable, and the season premiere, "A Scandal in Belgravia," was a dizzying spectacle of twists and turns, reveals I found fiendishly clever, a final moment that ranks among the best TV scenes of the year, and a wonderful use of Irene Adler. In the end, I have to dock Sherlock for "Hounds" – it is a third of the season – but if it had another episode on par with "Scandal" instead, it'd be in my top ten.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top Fifty TV Shows of 2012: #50 - 31

Television in 2012 was a tumultuous yet just as often joyous medium, with – no, I'm totally kidding! You guys are smart. You don't need a bloated, self-important preamble taking up space. The one note I'll make is that there are a handful of shows I'm a fan of but aren't on this list because I haven't gotten a chance to see any of their 2012 runs yet (probably most notably The Borgias and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). But other than that, my list is my list, love it or hate it. On to the fun:

50. The Newsroom (HBO)

Hands down the iconic hate-watching experience of 2012, The Newsroom continued the quest Aaron Sorkin began in Studio 60 to try to make me question all the love I ever had for Sports Night and The West Wing. Watching and jeering at his unceasing-for-over-a-decade-now hate campaign against the internet's very existence ("I have a blog?!") was, without fail, great fun every week, and I can't wait for the show to come back to shrilly preach and lecture at us again next summer.

49. Once Upon a Time (ABC)

Honestly, Once Upon a Time isn't very good, and I quit watching it halfway through the first season, started back up at the season finale, then quit again four episodes into season 2. But, that said, I do respect it for keeping serialized fantasy alive on network television, and to pretty damn good ratings at that. Better fantasy shows may exist down the line because this harmless but ultimately disposable fairy tale saga paved the road for them to travel.

48. Go On (NBC)

From the very first time I saw Friends until "The Last One" aired in May 2004, Chandler was always my favorite Friend and about 60-70% of the reason I watched the show, period. So it's a bit of a shame Matthew Perry has spent his post-Friends career bouncing around various shows unworthy of his talents. Nevertheless, this grief counseling semi-ensemble comedy gives him a chance to flex his sarcasm and averages about one or two laughs per episode, which ain't superb, but does – spoiler alert – make it the only new fall 2012 sitcom on this list.

Monday, December 24, 2012

It's Best of 2012 Week on Tim's TV Talk

Hey everyone. I'm forgoing my usual weekly episode review to turn my focus to doing a best TV of 2012 week here on Tim's TV Talk, so be sure to stay tuned to find out in what order I have ranked Two and a Half Men¡Rob!, Beauty and the Beast, Guys With Kids, Work It, Smash, 666 Park Avenue, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Neighbors, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as my top ten TV shows of 2012. Here's the schedule:

Thursday, December 27th – Top Fifty Shows of 2012, #50 - 31

Friday, December 28th – Top Fifty Shows of 2012, #30 - 11

Sunday, December 30th – Top Ten Shows of 2012

Monday, December 31st – Top Fifty TV Episodes of 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top Five Underrated TV Performances of 2012

Mad Men. Breaking Bad. Homeland. These are just a few of the many shows showered in critical acclaim and/or Emmy gold for their performances that I won't discuss here today in the only list I make denoting the best in 2012 TV acting, becausZZZZZZZZ. Oh, I'm sorry. Thinking about the monotony and sameyness of most TV criticism made me doze off for a second. But seriously, sometimes it's ok to acknowledge that other shows exist, and in that spirit I would like to highlight five TV performances I really enjoyed this year that are by and large going to go ignored by everyone else and sure as shit aren't going to be acknowledged by any awards organizations. Let's kick it off in the year 2036:

5. Georgina Haig as Etta on Fringe

When Fringe flashed forward without warning to the dystopian America of 2036, ruled by a race of psychic time-travelers called Observers and with the show's heroes nowhere to be seen, no-name Australian actress Georgina Haig was handed what was simultaneously the opportunity of a lifetime and a gigantic shit sandwich.

She had to step up as protagonist while the show's entire audience was wondering "What the fuck is happening? Who the fuck is this?!", delivering tremendous amounts of exposition about the show's new status quo and her own backstory and serving as the viewpoint through which we're introduced to a whole new world and several new characters, all while being a badass action hero and ending her first episode with a moment of tremendous, heart-rending vulnerability.

And she somehow pulled it off completely, creating a fully-formed character I totally invested in within 42 minutes. She was a great addition to Fringe in its final season, and I hope she can land on another show worthy of her talents come 2013.

4. Nick E. Tarabay as Ashur on Spartacus: Vengeance

There was a bit of a deficit in the villainy department as Spartacus entered its second proper season in January, and Nick E. Tarabay's Ashur – an important but ultimately background player in Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena – stepped up tremendously. In a show where almost every key antagonist is either a wealthy Roman or, at the very least, a wealthy Capuan, Ashur is notable as being the one major bad guy who's a slave just like the heroes, and his scrappy, keep-alive-through-any-means-possible nature is a big part of what makes him so damn compelling.

This year, Ashur's big move to stay alive was convincing Roman praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber to put him in command of what was basically an anti-Spartacus black ops team, charged to stop the rebels through any means necessary, and how! Ashur slaughtered women and children. He raped. He pillaged. He had people crucified and tortured with a smile on his face. He betrayed other characters to their deaths at the exact second it became useful for him to do so. And Nick E. Tarabay did it all radiating slime and menace and perhaps even with a little more depth than such a character demanded.

More than King Joffrey on Game of Thrones, more than Moriarty on Sherlock, more than Gyp Rosetti on Boardwalk Empire, more than Windmark on Fringe or Nazir on Homeland or the Governor on The Walking Dead, Ashur was the TV villain to love to hate in 2012. Kudos, Tarabay.

3. Mae Whitman as Amber Holt on Parenthood

While Parenthood's official main characters may be the adult Braverman siblings played by Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard and Erika Christensen, Mae Whitman as Lauren Graham's onscreen daughter Amber has been the show's secret weapon arguably since season 1. And in every way, too – she can nail a punchline (don't forget, Whitman is an Arrested Development/Scott Pilgrim alumnus), but when she cries, it's heartbreaking, and she throws herself into an onscreen argument like just about no one else I've ever seen. She sometimes got stuck in the show's more melodramatic corners in the first couple seasons (secret sex affair and running away from home in season 1, drug addiction and almost dying in a car accident in season 2), but Whitman always found the emotional truth in the situation, no matter how over-the-top.

But in this fall's fourth season, the Parenthood writers devised the masterstroke of pairing her up with Friday Night Lights' Matt Lauria as a returning Afghanistan veteran named Ryan. And when Ryan's doing good and the two are totally in love, it's probably the most heartwarming onscreen romance of 2012. But when she has to help him through a fellow veteran friend's suicide or when flashes of violence and alcoholism come out, it's deeply upsetting, and Whitman has been just explosively great with this material, knowing exactly when to play it big and when to play it small. Amber is very, very high up on my list of favorite TV characters right now.

2. Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman on Parenthood

Forget Claire Danes' collection of tics over on Homeland – Monica Potter was the TV actress to watch this fall. Probably the TV actress to watch in 2012, period, but I'm specifically focusing on fall because the Parenthood writers more or less decided to anchor season 4 of the show around Potter's character Kristina by giving her breast cancer.

Now what I'm praising here is really about half the writing, too, as the show has mostly (not entirely, but mostly) done a stellar job avoiding the clichés and pitfalls of the generic cancer arc, finding interesting new corners of the cancer experience to explore, but how staggeringly good Potter has been in the role nevertheless can't be overstated. She's had and excelled at some showier material – vomiting, crying, recording a weepy video for her kids to watch in case she dies – but she's also found some great quiet moments, such as when Kristina literally goes and hides to get away from the oppressive well-wishing and help with things she doesn't need help with people keep forcing on her.

There's even been light touches of comedy, too, such as in Kristina's new medicinal marijuana habit. Potter's been routinely heartbreaking this season, but even in the midst of that, her glassy-eyed, out-of-it announcement to her sister-in-law Julia that she's high in the middle of an otherwise unrelated conversation, after which she begins stuffing her face with candy, was one of the funniest TV moments of the fall. It's just a powerhouse performance, one of the best of 2012 in movies or television.

1. Andra Fuller as Kaldrick King on The L.A. Complex

While I understand and am not trying to denigrate the fact that it's a no doubt incredibly difficult thing millions of people go through, it's pretty hard for me to find the coming-out-of-the-closet TV narrative that interesting anymore. I've seen it and seen it and seen it, seen it played straight (no pun intended), seen it played with homophobic backlash to make it more dramatic, seen it subverted by no one caring, seen it played in the background of an otherwise unrelated sci-fi/fantasy story, seen it and seen it. For the most part I find myself wishing that shows would just have their gay characters be gay and that's that (see Spartacus and Happy Endings for two good examples).

But there's always the exception that proves the rule, and this year that exception was Andra Fuller as rapper Kaldrick King on the CW's pretty damn good and now frustratingly canceled behind-the-scenes-of-showbiz drama The L.A. Complex. If I recommend this nineteen-episode series to people in years to come, most of the reason why is going to be for the arc of this character (who was actually a supporting character in season 1, not even in the show's pilot, and didn't become a full-fledged main cast member until season 2).

Fuller had to throw himself into not one or even two but several personas of Kaldrick King throughout the series, including his public "thug" persona, the somewhat more subdued (but still outwardly heterosexual) version of himself he presents to his father and a few others he's close to, and his rarely-seen introspective, sensitive, and gay innermost self, though even that version can't come right out and use the word "gay," needing to resort to describing himself as a "faggot." (And then there's even combinations, such as the gay and thug persona we see a couple times).

And Fuller totally excelled at every single one of these personas, ranging the gamut from really scary to really heartbreaking. Just gripping, fiery, intense acting. I'd never heard of this guy before seeing him on this show, and his pre-The L.A. Complex filmography is frankly pretty godawful (eight credits, the three before Kaldrick King being single episodes of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, NCIS, and as "Room Service Guy" on Entourage),  but he gave quite possibly the best dramatic TV performance of 2012 that isn't Bryan Cranston or Jonathan Banks on Breaking Bad.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Homeland's Finale Is Big, Bold, Dumb, Thunderously Entertaining

Season 2 Episode 12 - "The Choice"

A couple weeks back, I lamented Homeland's slide down the ambition spectrum from a subtle, nuanced examination of the psychological price America has paid for the war on terror to a wacky, twist-a-minute, "who's-gonna-die-next?" pulp thriller. I said in that post that I'd be willing to overlook some of season 2's post-"Q&A" goofiness if the season finale delivered something a bit more along the lines of season 1, and holy fucking shit, did they go exactly the opposite direction. And I'mma be straight with you guys: I kinda loved it.

Don't get me wrong – this is not the show I fell in love with last year. It's not the show anyone fell in love with last year, despite a humorous number of TV critics I've read desperately trying to convince themselves otherwise. Homeland used to be I show I loved in the way I love Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. Now it's a show I love in the way I love a Tony Scott movie – motherfucking explosions and terrorist attacks and characters dying and escapes and chases and tough guys making threats and operatic emotion with a capital fucking E! Holy shit!

Sure, big, dumb, bombastic goofiness really isn't what I thought I had signed up for after seeing the series' pilot fourteen months ago. Not even close. But that don't mean it ain't damn entertaining television.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Returning Shows My Opinion Has Changed the Most on in 2012

Part of what makes television criticism livelier and in my opinion a bit more fun than film criticism is that it ain't static. A film, be it great, shit, or anything in between, is ultimately a completed work, a dead thing. Your opinion might shift gradually if you revisit it in years to come, but that's almost always a glacial process. A TV show on the other hand never stops moving and evolving, and you can find mild enthusiasm blooming into intense love or apathy curdling into hate very rapidly – or even enthusiasm into hate or apathy into love – and then back again within weeks. It's a veritable roller coaster of emotions.

It's in that spirit that I come to you in the waning weeks of 2012 to compare and contrast how I feel about shows today compared to how I felt about them on the cold dawn of January 1st. There are a number of shows that I like just a tiny bit more (Parenthood, Spartacus) or just a tiny bit less (Justified, Game of Thrones) than I did in 2011, but this is a space to explore the more dramatic shifts. Except for the top one or two, the rankings here are mostly pretty arbitrary, so don't take 'em too serious. I've color-coded my opinion shifts for maximum clarity: Blue indicates shows I like more now than I did in 2011, red shows I like less. Enough preamble, on to the fun:

10. New Girl (Fox)

Direction of shift: Mostly neutral to mostly positive

I kind of enjoyed New Girl's first half-season in 2011, but back then it it was just a sitcom, one with no real thematic ambitions beyond "here's some friends living in an apartment, laugh at their antics." Oh, and "adorkable." But in 2012, adorkability melted away to reveal a show that's a bit more interested in examining the psychological toil of turning 30 and realizing you've barely begun to accomplish. It even put out a near-great episode in "Injured," involving a cancer scare. It's not one of my favorite shows and probably never will be, but it's the only sitcom to have premiered in the last year and a half that I've stuck with beyond ten episodes, so kudos for that if nothing else.

9. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Direction of shift: Very strongly positive to moderately positive

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I in any way dislike Parks and Recreation – it remains one of the three or four best live-action comedies on television, and it's in my top 20 shows of the year. But it is clear at this point that the near-perfect sixteen-episode third season was the pinnacle of the series, and while the show's 21 episodes this year have almost all been amusing, only five or six – most of them at the end of season 4's election arc – have been truly notable, with "Pawnee Commons" being the only episode this fall I've been particularly enthusiastic about. I still really like the show, but I'm not sure I love it anymore.

8. Awkward (MTV)

Direction of shift: Very positive to hesitantly positive

I wrote about a year ago that Awkward's highly entertaining debut season was "not necessarily doing anything that teen movies haven't been since the 80s, but it's an exercise in high school underdog formula executed with remarkably fresh, youthful, and sometimes cheerfully vulgar energy." And that was true! What I didn't mention was the love triangle involving lead character Jenna Hamilton that constituted a small part of season 1, because, frankly, I mostly forgot about it. Then in season 2, said love triangle suddenly became the entire show. It was all anyone talked about, ever, and it smothered everything else. I still like Awkward's vibe, performances, and dialogue, but I was not a fan of season 2's story at all.

7. The Walking Dead (AMC)

Direction of shift: Intensely negative to leaning positive

I didn't do a "top ten worst shows of 2011" list, but I can say without hyperbole that if I had, The Walking Dead would have been on it. The first half of season 2's farm arc was absolutely some of the worst, most aggressively boring, actually angering television I'd ever seen. I felt like a sucker for having ever said anything good about the show. The second half of season 2 was definitely a bit better, if still not exactly good, but after getting the fuck out of that farm season 3 has been a marked improvement. Still not masterpiece television, though it did put out a stellar episode in "Killer Within," and there's been more danger, excitement, and plot momentum in each episode this fall than the entire first half of season 2 combined. I'll shout it from the highest rooftops: I don't hate The Walking Dead anymore!

6. Archer (FX)

Direction of shift: Very strongly positive to mildly positive

I was on such an Archer high from having just watched its first two seasons in one long marathon that I actually put it on my top ten shows of 2011 (though in retrospect and having come down from my high, I probably should have gone with Fringe instead). In contrast, this year, the last four episodes of season 3 sat recorded and unwatched by me for two months. I continue to enjoy some of the goofy spy missions, H. Jon Benjamin's vocal performance as Sterling Archer, and the episode "Lo Scandalo" (and when I finally got around to watching the final episodes, I actually did really like the "Space Race" two-parter), but at a certain point the "the final line of this scene cleverly sounds like it's being responded to by the first line of the next scene" writing quirk really started to grate, and my spirit was worn down by the oppressive, joyless hostility between the characters.

5. American Horror Story (FX)

Direction of shift: A bit positive to strongly negative

This is definitely one of those "Am I living in the Twilight Zone?" situations for me. All through season 1, TV critics the internet over were just shitting on American Horror Story. Meanwhile, I dunno, I thought it was a pretty charming little haunted house story! It paired a streamlined, uncomplicated approach to narrative with a fun kitchen-sink approach to mythology, and a nice performance from Taissa Farmiga anchored it. And now, critics are unanimous that season 2, subtitled Asylum, is a huge improvement. And it's not! It's fucking not! The charm is utterly gone, I couldn't care less about any of the characters, and the plot and mythology are a garish mess, as boring as they are nonsensical. I've even seen this thing show up on top ten of 2012 lists! What the fuck are critics smoking? I feel like I'm losing my fucking mind over here!

4. American Dad! (Fox)

Direction of shift: Neutral/apathetic to highly positive

2012 is the year that I finally came around on Seth MacFarlane. Granted, part of that is due to liking Ted and an even bigger part to finally reaching a boiling point with all the dullard comedy hipsters who treat him as their religion's Satan and just wanting to disagree with them on anything purely out of principle, but the biggest part was getting into American Dad!.

I had written the show off after watching the so-so pilot back in 2005, but this year I finally checked out some more recent episodes and discovered that it's become a terrific comedy, with Steve Smith and Roger the Alien in particular being two of the greatest sitcom characters right now. Watching six seasons on Netflix this year was a tremendous treat that nourished my comedy appetite for months. It's certainly a more accomplished, creative, and enjoyable show about a government agent than Archer, even if Archer's lower budget and American Dad! being produced by their personal boogeyman means that comedy snobs will never admit it. I look forward to it with enthusiasm every week.

3. Homeland (Showtime)

Direction of shift: Extremely strongly positive to positive with qualifications

I wrote about this pretty recently, but Homeland has been... troubled this season. Not bad, mind you, as it continues to entertain, but it's pretty much shed all the subtlety, patience, and nuance that distinguished it last year, morphing from something that at its pinnacle approached being the war on terror's answer to what The Wire was to the war on drugs into 24 minus the real-time gimmick. It was art. Now it's pulp. And I can enjoy pulp! (Ask me my thoughts on John Carter sometime.) But I can't help but feel it's a betrayal.

2. Boss (Starz)

Direction of shift: Strongly positive to pretty darn negative

My glowing, positively effusive review of the pilot episode of Boss is very high up on the list of TV criticism I've written that I now cringe the most while rereading (see also the fact that I ever pretended Up All Night had potential). And it's not that the show even changed that much in 2012 – it continued to be theatrical, deeply, deeply cynical, and Kelsey Grammer continued to bring immense fire to the titular mayor of Chicago – but, at a certain point, Boss season 2 became damaging to my soul.

It wasn't even the fact that, in terms of a sense of humor, the show made grimfests like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Homeland look like Friends, or the fact that the bad guys always won, as it was the fact that every single main character seemed to regard every other main character with pure, unbridled hatred – as nothing more than objects to be betrayed at exactly the right moment – and every main character save Sanaa Lathan's Mona Fredricks seemed to have nothing but pure evil in their hearts. It was the most joyless season of television I've ever seen. I came to hate watching it (not to be confused with hate-watching, which can be tremendous fun). I greeted Boss's cancellation with immense relief.

1. Bob's Burgers (Fox)

Direction of shift: Moderately negative to very, very strongly positive

You know that hypothetical list I just mentioned of TV criticism I've done that I now cringe to look at? Well, at the very top of that list would be my dismissal of Bob's Burgers from January 2011. I come before you today, metaphorical hat in hand, to offer a mea culpa for anything and everything bad I ever said about Bob's Burgers. I could not have been more wrong. Bob's Burgers is tremendous, tremendous fun, and between "Burgerboss," "Bob Day Afternoon," "Moody Foodie," "Bad Tina," "Full Bars," "The Deepening," and "Tina-Rannosaurus Wrecks," it's responsible for almost every one of my favorite non-Community half hours of comedy to air on television this year. I'll stop here because I'd like to do a full-length essay on it at some point, but Bob's Burgers is one of the best shows on TV. I love, love, love it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Parenthood Embraces the Cheese, to Mixed Results

Season 4 Episode 11 - "What to My Wondering Eyes"

Well, this is awkward.

After my generally bitter takedown of Homeland last week, I chose to balance the scales by reviewing my single favorite currently non-hiatus show on television, NBC's Parenthood. I went into "What to My Wondering Eyes" absent a shred of critical objectivity, planning in advance to report to my blog afterward to give it a thorough fanboy ball-washing, only to discover that it is without a doubt my least favorite Parenthood of 2012 and quite possibly the weakest entry since the series was first finding its footing back in season 1. Oops.

Part of the problem lay in Sarah's storyline, and part of it came down to sheer cheesiness. Don't get me wrong – Parenthood is, always has been, and always should be perhaps the most earnest, nakedly emotional show on television. That's why it's great. But this episode stumbled past earnest to become aggressively cheesy at points, a line that incredibly talented Parenthood boss and former Friday Night Lights boss Jason Katims has rarely fallen on the wrong side of in the past. It is my hope and expectation that with episode 12 he rights the ship and it's smooth sailing from there on out, but, despite the typically superlative acting and a few highlights, there were real problems here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Welcome to Tim's TV Talk

Welcome to Tim's TV Talk, my new blog entirely dedicated to dissecting NBC's Guys with Kids.

If you're a refugee here from my other blogs you may be wondering what's up with the new digs. It's pretty simple: I found that the more time went on and the more I wrote about pop culture the more I was enjoying discussing television as opposed to doing reviews of new movies, so I decided to just start a whole new blog more explicit about those intentions. WHAT I'M SAYING IS THAT FILM IS DEAD

No, don't get me wrong – I remain a movie lover as always, and can be found at the movie theater often enough to make it quite clear I have no life, but the internet is saturated with write-ups recommending what people go see or don't. Unless I'm truly passionate about a film, I find I have little to add to the collective dialogue surrounding it. A TV show on the other hand is a living, breathing organism, and the conversation surrounding one as you watch it grow and develop, for better or worse, can be rewarding indeed.

Since TV criticism is just a hobby and I don't want to burn myself out like I eventually did on my last blog, I'm going to aim for about nine or ten updates a month. Here's what I have in mind at the moment:

Best TV episodes of the month - On the 1st or 2nd of every new month, I'm going to list and briefly discuss what I thought the ten best television episodes of the last month were. Pretty straightforward. See examples here, here, here, and from a just few days ago here.

Random weekly episodic reviews - Once a week I'm going to review a TV episode, ideally switching shows every week. It's my hope that doing it this way will keep things fresher and frankly more fun for me than the homework assignment that trying to review every episode of certain shows eventually became (*cough* The Office Parks and Recreation *cough*). What show I do any given week won't be planned particularly far in advance and will depend entirely on what I find interesting, but I'll try to keep it as diverse as possible. I got a head start on this with Homeland this week.

Wednesday essays/lists - Every Wednesday I'm going to post a new essay or list relating to television. It could be a broad discussion of recent trends, a comprehensive look at one particular show past or present, rankings of something or other – anything goes. Just to give you an idea, a few of my upcoming plans for Wednesday posts are a discussion on whether it's better for shows to burn out or fade away, a list of my favorite underrated TV performances of 2012, a review of Spartacus up to this point, an analysis of which fairly recent shows have started to age the most badly, and a look back at the 1999 one-season wonder Mission Hill. So, basically, all kinds of shit.

News - This is only for if something really huge that I have to comment on right fucking now happens, like something on the magnitude of Dan Harmon's ousting from Community. The possibility of this is why I said "nine or ten updates a month" rather than just "nine updates a month."

Now this is not to imply that I'm completely done writing about movies – as a Bond fanatic, I am planning on saying my piece on Skyfall at some point, and on the rare week there's no TV episode I'm interested enough to discuss there's a good chance I'll fill in the gap with a movie review. (And if you really want my latest film thoughts, you can always just bookmark my Criticker page, which I update every single time I see a new movie.) It's not even out of the question that something about another medium entirely might sneak onto the blog at some point, but you can consider my priorities shifted strongly toward the idiot box.

You may also notice from the post listings on the side that I've gone through and imported all my TV writings from my old blog to this one, along with a tiny handful of non-TV posts that I was pleased with and wanted to consolidate into my now-primary blog (Bond henchmen, Bond villains, John BarryStar Wars, Ferris Bueller, GoldenEye, and NES's 25th). I will also try to be more consistent about tagging posts and whatnot to make the backlog easier to sort through if anyone wishes.

And... that's about all I have to say for the time being. Blog launched! Hope you enjoy! Or, if you don't, are at least angered enough to post outraged comments. "How could you not think The Walking Dead is the greatest masterpiece in the history of television?!!!" -- the internet

Monday, December 3, 2012

Homeland Goes Full Retard

Season 2 Episode 10 - "Broken Hearts"

Starting eleven and up through two years ago, there was a show called 24, and, despite its occasionally icky neoconservative overtones, I enjoyed it. Watched all eight seasons of it. I watched for Kiefer Sutherland's explosive performance as counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer, for its clever real-time gimmick, and I watched for its sheer, unadulterated cartoonishness.

Because of its violent, "mature" trappings, it wasn't called out on this as often as it probably should have been – even winning the best drama Emmy one surreal year – but it existed in a comic book universe where the leaders of various terrorist outfits almost always eventually got in on the action and mixed it up with Jack Bauer hand-to-hand like video game bosses, the depiction of technology and hacking frequently dipped into light science fiction, and the stakes were always comically high, with multiple presidents getting offed and bioweapons being released and, at one point, Los Angeles getting nuked. Mind you, I say this not out of scorn, but out of admiration for an unpretentious show that knew exactly what it was and didn't front. 24 was a Saturday morning cartoon for grown ups and totally comfortable being just that.

Then, one year ago, former 24 writers and producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon created a new show about counterterrorism, one that promised to be the Manchurian Candidate/The Conversation answer to 24's Saturday morning cartoon. It was a patient, subtle show, light on action, heavy on observation and detective work, with infinitely more modest (and thus arguably more believable and frightening) stakes. It took its time and played it cool, with arguably the most heart-pounding scene of the entire first season, in the episode "The Weekend," being a simple conversation wherein the show's protagonist frankly confronted a possible terrorist with her suspicions.

It was called Homeland, and it was a great season of television. I even recall a review or two saying it was doing for the war on terror what The Wire did for the war on drugs.

And now, after the utterly preposterous tenth episode of season 2, it's official: Nope. If The Wire had been written in this spirit, season 3 would have ended with McNulty and company racing to catch Stringer Bell before he launched his nefarious plan to hook all of Baltimore on dope by lacing it into the water supply, which he's gained access to by kidnapping the governor of Maryland's daughter. R.I.P subtle Homeland of season 1. Date of death, December 2nd, 2012. All hail 24 2.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Best TV Episodes, November 2012

10. Boardwalk Empire, Season 3 Episode 10 – "A Man, a Plan..."

Because sometimes all it takes is a sufficiently shocking ending (WARNING: SPOILERIFIC IMAGE BEYOND LINK!) to make sure a TV episode spends the next week rolling around in your head.

9. Supernatural, Season 8 Episode 8 – "Hunteri Heroici"

Supernatural's season-spanning story arcs have undeniably deteriorated since they ran out the clock on their initial five-year blueprint, but it remains a show worth watching because of its willingness to be weird, creative, and experimental on a week-to-week basis. Season 8's first departure was in episode 4, "Bitten," a found footage werewolf flick, but I prefer "Hunteri Heroici," wherein a psychic stuck in front of a TV blaring classic cartoons inadvertently uses his powers to blanket his town in cartoon physics. Weird and funny in all the right ways, with a dollop of classic Supernatural blood and gore, it's a damn fun episode.

8. Parks and Recreation, Season 5 Episode 8 – "Pawnee Commons"

I gather from the internet that thinking anything is better than last month's episode "Halloween Surprise" makes me history's worst monster, but "Pawnee Commons" is the first Parks this season that has worked for me front-to-back; its first season 3-level outing. Pawnee and Eagleton (partially) bury the hatchet via cooperation on park development, Andy and April feud with and romance each other under the alter egos of Bert Macklin and Judy Hitler, and Tom's Rent-A-Swag subplot moves forward nicely (and far less stupidly than last season's Entertainment 720 subplot). Good laughs, good character work all around.

7. Fringe, Season 5 Episode 5 – "An Origin Story"

At its best, Fringe involves well-meaning people doing bad things for the right reasons (see: "White Tulip," "And Those We've Left Behind"), and the show's fifth and final season, until this point an enjoyable if fundamentally a bit frivolous sci-fi adventure story, at last took shape as Peter Bishop made an awful, thrilling decision in his quest for justice, setting the stage for the series' final arc.

6. Parenthood, Season 4 Episode 7 – "Together"

Parenthood is maybe the single TV show which my love for snuck up on me the most slowly – I used to think it of it as being just ok back in early season 1, which evolved into me liking it a little (late season 1/early season 2), then liking it a lot (mid-to-late season 2), then really adoring it (season 3), and now, in its emotionally rich, often achingly beautiful fourth season, it being the currently in-season show I most look forward to every week. "Together" was just another damn good episode advancing this season's arcs, most notably Kristina's battle with breast cancer, with rare grace.

5. Bob's Burgers, Season 3 Episode 6 – "The Deepening"

With Community on hiatus, no sitcom is currently operating on a level comparable to Bob's Burgers, and this Jaws parody/homage was the show at its absurdist best. Second strongest effort of the season so far, just behind the Halloween episode, "Full Bars."

4. The Walking Dead, Season 3 Episode 4 – "Killer Within"

I struggle to name many shows that have ever aired that I'm more hot and cold on than The Walking Dead. I loved the pilot, enjoyed most of the rest of the first season except for the finale, which was middling, then I thought its 2011 run was, without hyperbole, one of the worst shows of the year. Seriously. That farm arc was some awful fucking television. And now, bouncing erratically about the quality spectrum like a rubber ball, the show has found a new lease on un-life with the prison and Woodbury, and, in "Killer Within," put out the single best episode they've done since the series premiere. Yes, a lot of its greatness came down to the shocking deaths, but maintaining this level of tension and excitement for an hour deserves plaudits even sans major casualties. (And, to prove how hot and cold I am with this damn show, the very next week saw me struggling to stay awake.)

3. Fringe, Season 5 Episode 7 – "Five-Twenty-Ten"

Partially because it kicked ass all the way around and advanced Peter Bishop's journey into increasingly dark and fascinating territory, but, to be totally honest, mostly because a hypnotic episode-ending montage set to some kick-ass tunes (in this case David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World") remains one of the strongest TV tricks in the book.

2. Boardwalk Empire, Season 3 Episode 11 – "Two Imposters"

Arguably the strongest episode of an already very strong season, "Two Imposters" represents the greatest strength of quality serialized storytelling: That awesome moment when the seemingly disparate threads that have been methodically laid out all season come together and you at last see the big picture. All the better when said big picture involves an incredible episode-long chase sequence, punctuated with gunfire, exploding with excitement and laced with dread, as it does here as the final battle between Nucky Thompson and Gyp Rosetti, ten episodes in the making, begins. Just awesome.

1. Parenthood, Season 4 Episode 8 – "One More Weekend With You"

There was remarkably raw, humane work being done at every corner of this exceptional (even by Parenthood standards) episode, but, so as not to turn this space into a full-on review, I'll focus in on the storylines of Amber and Kristina.

Despite Mae Whitman's insanely great performance – one that should have been nominated for Emmys by now – the character of Amber has often been a touch underserved by the show's major arcs, especially in the first half of season 3. But by bringing her into the orbit of Matt Lauria's Ryan York, a veteran somewhat painfully trying to reintegrate himself into normal life, her character has been revitalized and become one of the absolute best on television. Late of Jason Katims' last show Friday Night Lights, Lauria is a pitch-perfect addition to the Parenthood universe, and even if the military funeral that anchored the Amber/Ryan story this episode did feel a touch reminiscent of the FNL episode "The Son," lightning struck twice, because it worked its magic on my heart yet again.

Meanwhile, the Kristina breast cancer arc took a pretty interesting detour into an exploration of medicinal marijuana, and this story, while not losing sight of a touch of humor here and there, was handled with a tenderness that I found fascinating. Even as someone who hasn't smoked pot in going on half a decade, I found the "climactic" scene of this story where Kristina smokes away her nausea to be one of the most beautiful TV scenes of the year. I honestly didn't even know you could show someone full on inhaling from a joint and exhaling pot smoke on network television – let alone multiple times and thoroughly enjoying it with no negative consequences of any kind – and I'm really curious if Katims had to plead with NBC upper brass to make it happen, but kudos to him for risking outrage from moral crybabies and sticking to his artistic guns.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

SPARTACUS: WAR OF THE DAMNED News is Upsetting, Also Badass

It's called the "beautiful corpse" theory of television – the idea that the best thing a show can do for its legacy is to burn bright and die young, never facing the fading glory of old age.

It's not a bullshit theory, either. I can tell you right now that I will never as long as I live utter the words "You need to watch the U.S. version of The Office from beginning to end," because absolutely no one needs Nellie Bertram or Robert California in their lives. And this is coming from someone who, as recently as 2007, considered that show to be among the five best on television.

The Office may be the most recent and harrowing example, but the list of shows that could have stamped a stronger mark into history by bowing out a bit sooner is one that goes on and on, from The Simpsons to 24 to Gilmore GirlsDexterHouseSupernaturalScrubs, lots of sitcoms. I'm not saying these shows all went full-on necrotic before the end as The Office has, but greatness eventually slipped beyond all their reaches, some of them very, very far beyond.

On the flip side, it's the easiest thing in the world to recommend Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks or Firefly or Sports Night or Party Down or Terriers to someone looking for good TV to watch, partially because all those series can be blown through in under twenty hours, but more importantly because they all maintained unbroken runs of very high quality from beginning to end.

I of course wailed and gnashed my teeth when Arrested Development was cut down in early 2006, but at the same time, here's a worthwhile thought experiment: If that show had continued on through, say, season eight, to declining comedic results each year, eventually becoming the equivalent of Mitch Hurwitz's 2010 followup series Running Wilde, would its legacy loom quite so deified over the sitcom medium?

Maybe, but, looking at how little I see people talk about The Simpsons these days, maybe not. (And here's where we cross our fingers and pray that Arrested Development's ludicrously-hyped ten-episode fourth season coming to Netflix in a couple years doesn't break our hearts.)

Now mind you, that The Simpsons eventually faded does not undo its peak years being among the very best television ever created, but it does mean that, as with The Office and all those other shows, a recommendation of the show to some bizarre person who's never seen it does need to come with a giant verbal asterisk attached.

I'm not advocating that shows with stuff left in the tank be snatched from showrunners and killed just to make sure that corpse looks as sexy as possible, but I am absolutely saying that sometimes fat-free is the way to go, which brings us to Steven S. DeKnight's Spartacus franchise, recently and rather suddenly announced to be going into its final season, ominously subtitled War of the Damned.

I'll be first to admit that I was 100% taken aback by this news – my best prediction had been that the show was going to go two or even three more years before the final clash between Spartacus and Crassus, but the show's architect not only felt that one season was best, but having that one season be just ten episodes instead of thirteen was the artistic ideal.

My first instincts at having TV's sweatiest, pulpiest, bloodiest pleasure snatched from us so soon of course ran through a slightly bastardized version of the five stages – a flash of anger, a touch of grief – and some of that still lingers. But the more I think on it, the more ballsy and badass it is, and the bigger kudos I give to Starz for letting go their one ratings success exactly when the author deems it right for the story.

The list of things that make Spartacus a magnificent entertainment goes on and on and deserves its own post, which I will indeed be providing before its return, but near the pinnacle of that list, in bright neon letters, is pacing. If you've ever in your life complained while watching a serialized drama that it's moving too slowly or, worse, the dreaded "nothing happens," and you're not watching Spartacus, you're a hypocrite. This sucker moves, forcefully and aggressively. Arcs climax quickly and satisfyingly, heroes and villains clash, characters die, battles are fought, new settings and status quos are established and then torn down in the blink of an eye. The historical event I figured might cap off season four turned out to cap off season two, and it was deliriously fucking awesome.

So it seems fitting that such a breathlessly-paced work should have but three "official" seasons – Blood and Sand, Vengeance, and War of the Damned – and the six-episode prequel season Gods of the Arena constituting the entirety of its bloody, satisfying whole. They have a shitload of history left to get through, and I imagine that the idea for War of the Damned is to one-up Vengeance's having every two or three episodes be a massive, climactic game-changer to having every episode be a massive, climactic game-changer. If I'm even close to right, the collective whole of Spartacus is going to be something I'll be recommending to pretty much everyone with a tolerance for gore who likes awesome and entertaining things, forever.

AMC claims that "Story Matters Here," but we've all seen the way they scrape what should be three-episode arcs on The Walking Dead across entire glacially-paced seasons. Hey, AMC? Starz just fucking schooled you.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Best TV Episodes, May 2012

Runners-Up (alphabetical by show): Bob's Burgers - "Bad Tina," Game of Thrones - "A Man Without Honor," Parks and Recreation - "Bus Tour," Revenge - "Reckoning," Veep - "Catherine"

10. The Legend of Korra, Season 1 Episode 6 – "And The Winner Is..."

There are some Avatar: The Last Airbender fans who miss that show's looser structure and occasional standalone episodes in sequel series The Legend of Korra. I sympathize, but I also love Korra's lean, mean storytelling, and I love that they wrapped up the pro-bending story that fueled the first half of this season quickly, unconventionally, and really goddamn excitingly. The final aerial showdown in this episode was some crazy next-level animation for a Saturday morning cartoon.

9. 30 Rock, Season 6 Episode 20 – "Queen of Jordan 2: Mystery of the Phantom Pooper"

I'm frankly shocked to be putting the sequel to "Queen of Jordan," a season 5 Real Housewives parody I didn't enjoy much at all, on this list, but there's no denying that I bellowed with laughter through the whole thing. Airing the week after a vastly superior live show to last year's, this was just a killer season for direct sequel 30 Rock episodes. "Rude!"

8. Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 6 – "The Old Gods and the New"

It's all about Theon Greyjoy. I mean, I also enjoy Jon and Ygritte, Arya and Tywin, and crazy King's Landing riots where The Hound guts people (as for Robb and Talisa – well, that's more problematic), but, without going into spoilery specifics, I'm a big fan of how the Game of Thrones producers have handled Theon's arc this season, and I think Alfie Allen is kicking ass in the role. It's a fearless, fiery performance of one of TV's most aggressively pathetic characters that deserves real Emmy consideration.

7. Mad Men, Season 5 Episode 11 – "The Other Woman"

Anyone who talks TV with me is probably aware that I'm not part of the cultish, vaguely creepy masturbation circle TV critics have formed around Mad Men. But, at a certain point, damn good television is just damn good television. And what Matt Weiner and team pulled off with Peggy Olson and Joan Harris in this episode, sending them careening in entirely different directions from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's inner circle, is something that deserves respect indeed.

6. Community, Season 3 Episode 21 – "The First Chang Dynasty"

I love Community's more emotionally and thematically ambitious half-hours (more on that later down the list), but I'm also not averse to the show just kicking back and having some delirious, balls-to-the-wall fun. You know – since it does so better than all but two or three other sitcoms in the history of television, and all that. This Ocean's Eleven / general heist film parody was one of the funniest, most lightning-paced sitcom episodes I've seen in years, and a perfect capper to this season's Chang arc.

5. The Vampire Diaries, Season 3 Episode 22 – "The Departed"

Vampire Diaries showrunner Julie Plec just writes a damn good soap opera, and she knows how to deliver an explosive season finale that changes the game dramatically. I can't say much of anything about this episode without a diarrhea torrent of spoilers, but I'll just say that it was a great finale that did a lot to redeem an occasionally draggy season, replete with a final moment – like, literally the last two seconds of the episode – that goes down as one of the series' most haunting images.

4. Community, Season 3 Episode 19 – "Curriculum Unavailable"

Speaking of sitcoms making good with sequel episodes, hey, Community! Last season's paintball finale, while not quite "Modern Warfare," was the best sitcom finale of spring 2011 by a mile, and this season's blanket fort two-parter, particularly "Pillows and Blankets," against all odds and logic managed to one-up season 2's masterpiece "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design." So, it should come as little shock that the show's second fake clip show more or less equals the first, last season's "Paradigms of Human Memory." It's wackier and more scattershot, but god does it deliver the laughs. A fantasy sequence set in an insane asylum is probably the best TV moment of 2012 so far.

3. Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 9 – "Blackwater"


2. Community, Season 3 Episode 22 – "Introduction to Finality"

I'm about to make two consecutive controversial claims about Community, the first of which is that part of me wishes this had been the series finale. I mean, don't get me wrong – in a brightest timeline where Dan Harmon was continuing on the show, yes, I'd absolutely be salivating for more Community. But that timeline is not our timeline, and in our timeline I believe that if Community had wrapped up with its 71st episode, "Introduction to Finality," I would look back upon the series as the second greatest live-action sitcom of all time. This episode launched Troy, Shirley, and Pierce into promising new futures, yes, but beyond that, it completed Jeff Winger's character arc. Jeff is now thankful he was sent to Greendale, thankful for the family – the community – that he has become a part of. And that's beautiful.

1. Community, Season 3 Episode 20 – "Digital Estate Planning"

Here's controversial claim number two: I think that "Digital Estate Planning" might be one of my favorite TV episodes of all time, and my favorite episode of Community's third season. If you didn't notice when I advocated the living shit out of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I have a bit of a soft spot for films and television that pay tribute to classic video games. (Fittingly, "Burgerboss" is my favorite Bob's Burgers episode by a truly colossal margin.) And when I say "pay tribute to," I mean "pay tribute to," not "reference." There's a big, big difference, and it's a difference that almost none of the films or shows that have set scenes to guys playing first-person shooters have ever grasped.

That's what I figured Community's "video game episode" was going to be when I first heard about it, honestly. That's what Community even did once back in "Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy." Even when I heard it was going to involve traveling into a video game, I figured, sure, poor-man's-Pixar CGI people, first person shooter. Maybe a World of Warcraft parody, territory South Park already marked years ago.

So when I saw that it was going to be a tribute to 8/16-bit gaming, complete with visible pixels and NES-styled chiptunes, a tribute that could only be made by people who truly love and understand gaming, a wave of gratitude that a show like this could sneak on the air, and get the budget and the toys to do the amazing, ambitious things it wants to do, swept over me. That the episode was staggeringly fucking funny, a visual and musical nostalgic feast, and tied seamlessly into Pierce's long-running character arc raises the bar for what sitcoms can aspire to to an almost unfair level.

It says a lot about this episode's almost incalculable greatness that the presence of Breaking Bad's fourth season MVP Giancarlo Esposito was just gravy on top. Perfect television. Don't expect to see but one or two more sitcom episodes this ambitious this decade.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Spartacus: Vengeance, Episode 6 – "Chosen Path"

All the Gannicus goodness you can handle in Spartacus: Vengeance's sixth episode, "Chosen Path." Full review behind the cut. SPOILERS!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Best TV Episodes, February 2012

10. The Walking Dead, Season 2 Episode 10 – "18 Miles Out"

By finally letting the long-simmering tension between two characters explode into fisticuffs then having a roaming horde of zombies bring the already intense scene to a logical boil, a series that often feels pathologically resistant to the dread and heightened emotion that should define its post-apocalyptic zombie world finally lumbered, itself zombie-like, back into the realm of dramatic relevance. The best episode of an otherwise disappointing second season.

9. Spartacus, Season 2 Episode 2 – "A Place in This World"

Between a moderately badass raid on a Roman villa by Team Sparty, the introduction of promising new character Nasir, and a fun (if mildly predictable) twist ending that brought an absent character back into the fold with a bang, this was just a good solid Spartacus outing.

8. The Office, Season 8 Episode 14 – "Special Project"

The Office had honestly come to feel even more bland and directionless without Steve Carell than I first feared when his departure was announced two years ago, but with "Special Project" the show introduced the Florida story arc that would split the cast in an interesting new way, introduce some fresh settings, and just generally grab a sedate show and shake it awake. It wasn't uproarious, but it at least set a lost ship on course, which alone warrants ovation.

7. Fringe, Season 4 Episode 14 – "The End of All Things"

Along with the stylish, creepy return of a villain from the show's distant past, the last episode of Fringe before a month's hiatus brought about an unprecedented advancement in Olivia Dunham's mysterious abilities, developed Peter's arc in a way that feels like its setting up the end of the season, and most importantly explained a four-years-in-the-making mystery with a concrete, satisfying, and above all science fiction answer that, after the magical fantasy mumbo jumbo of Lost's final year, was such sweet relief.

6. Parenthood, Season 3 Episode 18 – "My Brother's Wedding"

The generally excellent and tightly-serialized third season of Parenthood concluded with this literally-named finale which proved moving and funny in equal measure. A few of its resolutions to long-running storylines were a bit too pat, but among other excellent qualities it featured a grown man dumping a bowl of salsa over another grown man in anger, one of the most admirably understated, zero-angst teen virginity loss storylines I've seen on TV, and had Derek Phillips (Billy Riggins from Friday Night Lights) playing a character named Billy who behaved exactly like Billy Riggins. Hard to argue with that.

5. Parenthood, Season 3 Episode 17 – "Remember Me, I'm the One Who Loves You"

... However, it wasn't quite as good as the episode immediately preceding it, which impressively scored its seven-minute final act to more or less the unbroken entirety of Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlanticism," a deeply moving montage of scenes cut together with the gradually crescendoing emotional power of a superb music video. Powerful performances from Erika Christensen and Rosa Salazar in this episode too.

4. Spartacus, Season 2 Episode 3 – "The Greater Good"

"The Greater Good" brought the three-episode arc of Team Sparty's initial mission in Spartacus: Vengeance to a heart-pounding climax. Spartacus and crew took aim at their biggest Roman target yet in a sequence that appeared to stretch the show's budget for special effects, new sets, and fake blood, and damn, did they pull it off. And if that weren't enough, the episode featured the reunion of Oenomaus and Ashur, a harrowing sequence in which secrets years in hiding came out and altered key character relationships forever.

3. 30 Rock, Season 6 Episode 8 – "The Tuxedo Begins"

Proving that it's still got some wind in its sails even past its hundredth episode, 30 Rock embraced its most joyously goofy instincts with this four-years-late (or five months early, depending on how you look at it) Dark Knight parody, wherein Liz gradually becomes Heath Ledger's Joker and Jack Batman over the course of twenty deliriously absurd minutes, with a climactic rooftop confrontation that would make Chris Nolan proud. Even Jenna's romance with the cross-dressing Paul, a story I thought had a near-supernatural ability to destroy all comedy in episodes past, found a new angle that actually made me laugh out loud. Funniest sitcom episode of 2012 so far.

2. Fringe, Season 4 Episode 12 – "Welcome to Westfield"

A huge, twisty, ambitious disaster film in every way except for not being feature-length, "Welcome to Westfield" is my favorite episode of Fringe's fourth season and on my shortlist of best episodes of the series. Our heroes happen to be in exactly the wrong town at exactly the wrong time as it begins to blink out of existence, its city limits warped in space and time such that leaving is literally impossible. It only gets worse when horrifying, psychotic semi-humans with multiple faces on one head begin attacking as Walter and crew desperately try to figure out what's happening and how to save themselves and the few remaining townspeople from the consuming nothingness.

The production values are awesome, the action scenes intense, the whole thing huge and imaginative and massive in scale and better than almost any actual disaster film I've seen in years (talking to you, 2012!). But even amongst all this, the otherwise standalone episode still finds time to advance the season arcs of its central heroes, particularly Olivia, as memories of the lost blue universe begin flooding their way back into her mind. When you mix the epic and the intimate this well, that's just spectacular television.

1. Spartacus, Season 2 Episode 5 – "Libertus"

If "Libertus" were the tenth episode of Spartacus: Vengeance rather than its fifth, it might just go down as one the best, most utterly climactic season finales I've ever seen. I don't know that I would place it above Spartacus: Blood and Sand's finale, "Kill Them All," but if not it's just one small step down. I can't even believe they did something this goddamn huge just five episodes in. As is, its place at the season's midpoint speaks to the depth of Spartacus showrunner Steven DeKnight's ambition and sweeping vision for this project.

I know I'm being purposefully vague as hell, but for real, what goes down at the end of this episode is some of the most insane shit I've seen on television in years, and I don't want to give anything away lest any unconverted reading this take my word and catch up on this great show down the line. I'll just say that it's huge, fiery, violent, destructive, contains the deaths of no less than three major characters in a five-minute span, and generally had me gaping awestruck at what was unfolding before me. A truly badass sequence that I'm dying to see whether or not this show can ever top again.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top Ten TV Shows of 2011

No need for essay-length preamble, you know the drill. Also, standard "I haven't seen everything" disclaimer applies (perhaps most notably I haven't yet seen the acclaimed second season of Justified), so if your favorite show is missing there's no need to stress; it might just be on my to-see list and wasn't excluded deliberately.

Unless of course your favorite show is The Walking Dead, in which case I excluded it extremely deliberately. Sorry. Starting with our runners-up:

Noble Runners-Up (in alphabetical order)

30 Rock (NBC) – Between the freewheeling absurdity of "Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning," the satirical edge of "TGS Hates Women," and the show's slightly masturbatory but still hugely entertaining love letter to itself in its hour-long hundredth episode, "100," the fifth season of 30 Rock ended strong last spring, keeping its reputation as one of TV's funniest and most irreverent sitcoms rightly intact.

Awkward (MTV) – Likely the year's biggest surprise for me and the tiny handful of others way outside MTV's target demo who caught it, Awkward emerged from nowhere to instantly become one of the best high school sitcoms ever. It's not necessarily doing anything that teen movies haven't been since the 80s, but it's an exercise in high school underdog formula executed with remarkably fresh, youthful, and sometimes cheerfully vulgar energy, and lead Ashley Rickards feels like a star on the rise.

The Chicago Code (Fox) – The most tragically canceled one-and-done season of television to air in 2011 came from the very same executive producer behind 2010's tragic one-and-done Terriers, Shawn Ryan, a man on a simultaneously hot and cold streak of artistic success and commercial failure. Nevertheless, these thirteen episodes did a fine job telling a thrilling, complex, and more or less complete story about the intersection between police and politics, with Delroy Lindo giving one of TV's meatiest, most entertaining performances of the year as corrupt Alderman Ronin Gibbons.

Fringe (Fox) – Network TV's best sci-fi show remains network TV's best sci-fi show, and not by a little. Despite the fourth season's controversial new direction (though few will deny the greatness of "And Those We've Left Behind," one of the best episodes of the series), Fringe's 2011 run continued to command cultish love even as it alienated mass audiences with its hard sci-fi, alternate timelines, parallel universes, and animated episode, all while Anna Torv kept delivering not one but several of television's quietly great performances as the many versions of FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham.

Louie (FX) – Comedian Louis C.K.'s loosely-connected series of short films masquerading as a TV series continued to demand respect with its remarkable confidence, command of tone, and week-to-week unpredictability in its second season. Once a comedy, Louie now blurs genre lines unlike anything else on TV, having one episode build in its entirety to a massive fart while other episodes included straight-faced, relatively unsmiling depictions of Louie traveling to Afghanistan to entertain the troops and trying to talk a failed comedian friend out of suicide. 

The Vampire Diaries (The CW) – TV's best supernatural soap (fuck off, True Blood!) kept its foot on the gas and blew through 2011 without letting up on its alarming pace of jaw-dropping plot twists, agonizing cliffhangers, cool violence, nasty villains, and major character deaths for a second. Marrying the outer trappings of a teen drama to the internal combustion engine of a relentless thriller, The Vampire Diaries kicks ass.

Top Ten TV Shows of 2011